Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Ian Haight

Tony Hoagland

Robert Pinsky

Wyn Cooper

There are certain people, the mere fact of their being alive, that gives you reason for hope.  Donald Hall was one such person for me, and while his passing on June 23 was unsurprising--he'd been in ill health--the world feels a little emptier without him sitting on his front porch in Wilmot, watching the haze gather on Blue Mountain.  I loved the Bill Moyers tribute to Hall and Jane Kenyon back in 1993, and I enjoyed Hall's periodic cameos on NPR, Garrison Keillor without the fake folksiness, and I've read just about every one of the many books he produced from the time he and Jane left Ann Arbor in 1975 right up to his Essays After Eighty.

The obits have him as kin to Robert Frost, but this is wrong: Hall was far more versatile, much funnier, and deeply humane.  Hall wasn't "just" a poet of rural New England, not even close.  My favorite of his many books is Museum of Clear Ideas (1993). I love its witty "Nine Innings" on baseball, written to explain America's game to Kurt Schwitters, "Merz-poet and artist," the surrealist who is imagined sitting with Red-Sox-loving Donald  in the Fenway bleachers. A notable collection of historical figures--Rilke, Alexander the Great, Zane Grey, Moses and Dwight Evans--are brought together with love and wit to plumb the depths of the game Hall pondered and adored throughout his life.

Here's one for Donald, from his wife, Jane Kenyon, both now gone, and missed:

Heavy Summer Rain

The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day

turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.

Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.


Ian Haight is a poet I came to know through his translations of Korean poetry, done for, among others, the White Pine Korean Voices series. Haight has won numerous awards for his translations, but I had no knowledge of his own poems until I received a copy of his collection, Celadon, published in 2017 by Unicorn Press of Greensboro, N.C.   Celadon pottery, often a jade-green ceramic form that originated in China but spread to Korea and Japan, is characterized by a particular type of glazing and often features "tiny cracks" or imperfections (according to Chinese Celadon Wares by Godfrey St. George Montague).  I don't doubt that Haight, a poet of intelligence and wit, had the idea of slight imperfections in mind as he crafted the poems in his prize-winning collection, many of which employ deft ventriloquism in order to uncover lives that are otherwise closed to us.  It is the "slight cracking" in lives that Haight explores. Here's "Diary of a Korean Farmer," a poem representative of Haight's stripped-down diction, terse lines, and mode of evoking rather than describing feeling--

I used black tape
to hold my daughter's faded picture
on the truck's front.

I thought it best
to start the funeral
at her school.

I drove in a long
circle on the playground.
Some mothers stood
under a tree, next to cars.

I saw a cloud
near a peak.

The tide was low
at the riverside.
The water pulled away,
I smelled the river's mud-earth.

A mourner's car parked
by the river,

Mountains circled
the valley.
I wondered
if she might be
at the top of one

I knelt by the box
while the shaman chanted.

When I looked out
over the water,
my arms grew tight.

I remembered I hit my daughter
when I drank too much,

how she called
to me from a nightmare.

I remembered my wife
bathing her
in our warmed room.

I thought of the money
I didn't have,
how next year
the only people buying
our rice
would be from the government.

I thought of the little water
left in the river,

I could open the box then
spread her ashes
and be happy.

There's Li Po and Tu Fu in these stripped-down stanzas, each articulating a complex feeling in simple declarative statements.  Whether he's in Korea or Detroit or Florida, Haight approaches his subjects with the same clear-eyed intensity--"I could open the box then/spread her ashes/and be happy."  Rural sadness, the tribulations of the poor--these are a given. The use of the conditional makes the point visceral: there is something I might do that would bring me happiness, a happiness dependent on the worst of long list of troubles.

Haight also deals in negatives, perhaps with the Zen-mind of a translator of Korean poetry:

"I don't want to live next to you/in the house by the river" ("Farmers Hunt Turkeys"

"I don't miss the day/he cursed our children" ("The Neighbor's Son")

"Rice doesn't grow/in the gravelly/mountains..." ("A Chinese Migrant")

One sees the beauty of the outside of the bowl and the emptiness within, waiting to be filled.


Summer is the season for long, boring games of baseball (Bryce Harper, that traitor, wants to shorten games to seven innings!), long outdoor dinners watching the sun set,  long novels that meander toward nowhere, and long afternoons reading poems--the ultimate slap in the face delivered to the pragmatists and efficiency experts. People of my acquaintance are fond of reminding me that "no one" reads poetry any more. Good.  When no one else does something, then I am certain that it is worth doing.


Tony Hoagland is one of my go-to summer poets. The witty melancholy of his collection Application for Release from the Dream is a tonic for our dishonest age. He's a wag, un-PC, "inappropriate," likely to give offense, a tweaker of noses. Everything he writes is worth reading--about how many poets can we assert this?  Here's one of my favorites:

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor's travel magazine.
At this stage of the journey

I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York,
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval
between Muzak and lunch,

a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,

tilting up my head to watch
those planes engrave the sky
in lines so steady and so straight

they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess's pantyline,
then back into my book,

where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it,
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.

Imagine being born and growing up,
rushing through the world for sixty years
at unimaginable speeds.

Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime

and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now? 

Hoagland also writes incisive criticism; his most recent book, Twenty Poems that Could Save America and Other Essays is one of the two best books I have ever read on the craft of poetry, the other being Robert Pinsky's Singing School. Hoagland's essays on Robert Bly and Dean Young are full of intelligent insights, and his suggestions in regard to poetic form, style, and voicing are better than you'll find in any "how-to" book (plus funnier).


I've been reading Wyn Cooper's Mars Poetica for the past week. Cooper is new to me, and I am happy I found him. He's published four books prior to this one. There's nothing better than finding a new poet and discovering yet another way to say the things that poets say--new forms and vocabularies and tones of voice and attitudes. Cooper comes right at you; he's open and honest and straightforward.

Here's the title poem:

Imagine you’re on Mars, looking at earth,
a swirl of colors in the distance.
Tell us what you miss most, or least.

Let your feelings rise to the surface.
Skim that surface with a tiny net.
Now you’re getting the hang of it.

Tell us your story slantwise,
streetwise, in the disguise
of an astronaut in his suit.

Tell us something we didn’t know
before: how words mean things
we didn’t know we knew.

I hope you'll find some new poets this summer, and reread some of your old favorites.

George Ovitt (6/26/2018)



Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Adios Hemingway, Leonardo Padura Fuentes (a novel)

Ernest Hemingway, Mary V. Dearborn

He was a man's man.

The kind of man about whom Richard Slotkin wrote in Regeneration Through Violence; the man who "won the West;" the man with a house full of animal heads, a case full of guns, a rotting liver and a gigantic libido.

A dinosaur.  Like God, our culture--dishonest, feckless, preening, consumerist, shallow--has killed off men like Hemingway. Outside of the military, the version of masculinity Hemingway represented has passed into oblivion.  He was a bully and a drunk and an artist. He did not suffer fools; he didn't bow down to the gods of money and power. He was, like him or not, his own man.

In his various biographical guises, Hemingway comes off as brutal and bloodthirsty, buffoonish, drunken, insecure, and, near the end of his life, paranoid.  After reading Mary Dearborn's  biography it is difficult to disagree with this evaluation But he was also courageous, generous, loyal, and committed to his art.

I am rereading a handful of the novels and trying to recapture some of the excitement they engendered in me when I was a young man. To be honest, I'm ambivalent about all of them except for The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and The Sea. The simple cadences of his style--a style learned during Hemingway's brief stint at the Kansas City Star--feels more like reportage than literature. In the opening of To Have and Have Not, for instance, I can't make out the look of the bar (it's the Floridita in Havana) or the disposition of the characters during the gunfight that initiates the story.  The scene is flattened, more like a series of still photos than a narrative describing propulsive action. I understand what Hemingway was aiming for, a laconic detachment implying an unwillingness to judge events, but I can no longer live comfortably without judgments, without a sense of the weightiness of things.This feeling is unshakable during even the best sections of The Sun Also Rises, a book that might have been written by Camus or Gide or Beckett. 

In this post I want to approach Hemingway in terms of a philosophical problem rather than from the point of view of literary merit. The wonderful Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuenctes invites us, in his tiny gem of a novel Adios Hemingway, to rethink Hemingway's life and art, and I have tried to do so.

Please bear with this brief sidebar:

David Hume argued that there can be no such thing as a "self." In our internal life we note a riot of impressions, ideas, memories, sensations, fears, desires, opinions, and so forth. We flit from one thing to another. While we are performing even the most intimate and intensive actions--making love or writing poems--our minds still move to other things: the cool feeling of the air moving through the window, the dog that never ceases barking, the slight pain our knee, the bottle of wine that we will enjoy with dinner.  Everyone before Hume simply assumed that the mind was a theater and that the panoply of acts that crossed the stage was objectively observed by the Soul, made note of and rounded up in some fashion in order to create the Self.  Kant took Hume's point and ran with it--in the first critique he developed the notion of Transcendental Idealism, of an objective, self-observant critical consciousness.

Kant's understanding of how the mind imposes order on the outside world--in part through the categories of space, time, and causality--was unsatisfactory on a number of levels, and generations of critics wrestled with the fundamental problem that Hume articulated and that Kant believed he had settled.  Namely, how does the mind order the world in such a way that it appears to possess continuity and coherence? And what is this self or mind apart from the impressions it receives? The absurdity of Locke's idea of the "blank slate" made Kant's reconstruction of the inner life all the more important. 

To get some idea of what Kant was worried about, imagine that you were to forget the past, to sustain a brain injury that eradicated your memory and therefore your personality. Would you still be the person you had been?  What is this Self in which we place so much faith, that we give our name, that we trust to be there when we need it? ("Just be yourself" we say, and. "Be true to yourself"). This sounds like an argument you might have had in a college dorm room--it probably was--but even this crude formulation of the problem suggests something of the difficulty we face when thinking about our inner life and how it is connected to our sense of self.

What does any of this have to do with Hemingway?

No writer I can think of so carefully (or carelessly) blended his writing and his life; or, to put it another way, I can think of no other writer whose literary achievements are as inextricably bound to a particular way of life, a way of life that, as Mary Dearborn makes plain, Hemingway deliberately cultivated and consciously pursed.  He lived his books as few writers have lived theirs, and when he could no longer live a life centered on hunting, fishing, drinking, and pursuing women not only did he cease writing, he ceased living.  Beginning in 1958, Hemingway slipped into paranoia, ill-health, and senility; he no longer was the man he had been, and therefore the writer he had been.

It is the story of the slipping out of a life that Leonardo Padura Fuentes tells in Adios Hemingway. Mario Conde, the hero of Fuentes's wonderful Havana mysteries (try Havana Blue), has retired from police work to become a writer. His former partner and now chief of the Havana police asks Conde to investigate the identity of a body that has been unearthed on Heminway's former Finca, now a museum, or mausoleum, dedicated to the writer's years in Cuba.  Conde, who once revered Hemingway and took the novelist as his role model, has come to despise "Papa," to see the American ex-pat as  loutish and cruel, a man who was, in fact, capable of murder.  Conde takes on the job of identifying the corpse and finding the killer, and in doing so he unearths not just the body of an FBI agent and the killer, but also the central mysteries of Hemingway's life. 

While Conde sets out to solve a murder, the reader is led back in time to Hemingway's final days in Cuba. I loved these sections for their rich evocation of the writer's life, and for their intelligent exploration of the connection between the self and the artist. In Heminway's case, this connection was absolute and therefore is a provocation to think about the meaning of literary art.

Fuentes's explores with great economy and delicacy the connection between the self-identity of Hemingway and his sense of himself as an artist.  Once he can no longer live as he has lived, once he must renounce the outward roles he has played--as a hunter, a drinker, a lover--his inner world shrivels to nothing. He can't finish Death in the Afternoon because he can no longer evoke the drama of a bullfight. And, lacking the ability to write, why go on living?

That so slender and so unpretentious a novel would lead me to reread Hemingway, to search out a new biography, to write for days in my notebook about the relationship(s) between the writer's life and the writer's perception of his inner self, all of this speaks volumes about Fuentes's art.  I have just ordered Fuentes's big novel about Trotsky, The Man Who Loved Dogs and am looking forward to writing about it in a future episode of Talented Reader.   What is summer for but the discovery of exciting new books and writers? 

Have a cigar. 

George Ovitt (6/19/2018)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Confederation of Souls

Pereira Declares by Antonio Tabucchi
I'm nothing.     
I'll always be nothing.
I can't want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.
Windows of my room,
The room of one of the millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?)

               Álvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa)

The médecins-philosophes were a revolutionary group of French physician-philosophers who, throughout the latter half of the 18th century, sought to combine the best medical practices of the day with the prevailing philosophical thinking. Among their most well-known notions was that of the confederation of souls, the theory that every human being is comprised, not of a single discrete soul, but of numerous souls, all of which are governed by a single ruling ego.   

Pereira Declares is a brilliant short novel set in Portugal, in Lisbon in the summer of 1938, near the start of the grim, fascist regime of António Salazar, the story of a lonely, overweight journalist and widower named Dr. Pereira who is content just to keep his head down by writing a culture page for a small, conservative newspaper called Lisboa, translating an occasional short story from the French, and spending his afternoons eating and drinking at his favorite café. Never interested politics, he doesn’t want to cause trouble, he doesn’t want to make waves.

One day, while in conversation at his favorite cafe, his friend, Dr. Cardoso, introduces him to the work, the thinking, of the médecins-philosophes, explaining to him in summary that “…within us we each have numerous souls…a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego… It may be,” continues Dr. Cardoso, “that after slowly nibbling away in you some ruling ego is gaining the chieftainship of your confederation of souls, Dr. Pereira, and there’s nothing you can do about it except perhaps give it a helping hand whenever you get the chance.” It is an idea that intrigues him, but to which he gives little attention until he makes the acquaintance of a young man named Monteiro Rossi, whom he decides to recruit for the newspaper in order to create an archive of “advance obituaries on the writers of our times.” It is an encounter that marks a tuning point in his otherwise safe and apathetic life, drawing him swiftly into the heart of the politically dangerous times. While initially resistant to the call of this new ruling ego within himself, insisting to Rossi, “I am neither one of you, nor one of them, I prefer to keep to myself,” he is finally forced to commit himself, to enter the world, to act at last in the name of a matters greater, more lasting than himself. 

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Balkan Ghosts

Girl at War, Sara Nović (fiction)

The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder (not fiction)

Though we could not have known it at the time, the war and "ethnic cleansing"--that is, genocide--in Yugoslavia foreshadowed all that was to come following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The patched-together, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot Yugoslavia was itself the creature of another empire's implosion--the Austro-Hungarian, which was, in turn, the mid-nineteenth century remnant of the great Hapsburg Empire founded in 1279.  Large, ungainly conglomerations of people never endure; tribalism trumps cosmopolitanism; hopeful chatter about how people of different "races and religions" can "put away their differences" and "live together in peace" have proven time and again to be illusion.  The horror that erupted in the Balkans in 1991was mostly ignored in the West until the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

Timothy Snyder demonstrates with his usual clarity and enormous erudition--he reads not only the usual European languages but also Polish and Russian--that the Russia of Putin was founded, with sclerotic assistance from Boris Yeltin and the ever-naive West, as an embodiment of eternal principles, that is of idea related to the fascist's disbelief in historical change, in liberal progress, in the dialectic processes that underpin republicanism and democracy. Putin is of course the new Tsar, but, more than that, he embodies Ivan Ilyin's view that history isn't about people at all, rather it is about the recovery of Divine Will as personified by an absolute ruler--a fascist prince not unlike Mussolini, Hitler, or Putin himself.  A ruler who brooks no opposition, no compromise, no critics.

Ilyin, as Snyder shows, is the hero of the New Russia, the court philosopher and, though dead, its guiding light. Of course unquestioning obedience suits a kleptocracy perfectly, and those who worry that any democratic compromises will undercut their power are naturally drawn to the rabid thinkers like Ilyin who loathed any form of popular governance. *

Girl at War, Sara Nović's strong debut novel, answers, with great empathy, the question: "What happens to the victims of war?" We might read about unspeakable crimes--as with the Balkan war, massacres, mass graves, torture centers, rape--but don't have a clue as to how those who survive carry on with their lives. Nović's "girl," the resolute and courageous thirteen-year-old Ana Juric, watches Zagreb, her home, succumb to the Serbian Cetniks (or Chetniks), an ultra-rightest, Serbian nationalist group committed to the "ethnic cleansing" of what they considered "greater Serbia." Her own family falls victim to a Serbian militia, and she finds herself living, and fighting, with the Croatian resistance. A remarkable, yet credible set of circumstances sees Ana rescued from the fighting and sent to live in the United States with the family that has already adopted her younger sister.  

The central section of this triptych of a novel is set ten years after Ana's rescue and describes her difficulty--one can well imagine it--adjusting to a the normal life of an American college student.  We understand that overcoming memory is impossible, and that returning to Zagreb offers Ana the only hope she has of finding--what? People like to say "closure," but what does that mean? "Healing" isn't an option. I think of Ana's return to the scenes of the crimes committed against her and her family as a validation of her identify. She is no longer Croatian, nor is she American; rather she is one of the millions--a number that grows daily--of the victims of war, of forced migration and displacement, of ethnic and tribal hatreds that give the lie to the fantasy of globalism and cosmopolitanism.  

Girl at War powerfully evokes recent history in retelling Ana Juric's story, but the novel is important because its theme is universal. Victors have short memories; it is the victims who are obliged to keep the past alive for the rest of us. 

"Now I'm retired, but I'm still in a good mood to kill people," asserts Vojislav Carkic, an Orthodox priest who served with the Chetniks during the Yugoslav war.  God's work, in this priest's view, remains unfinished so long as there are non-Serbs--Muslims and Catholics--in God's Serbia.  This was what Ilyin had in mind back in the 1930's, a righteous Holy War of the Orthodox--Russians in Ilyin's case--a war to cleanse God's earth of sinners and unbelievers.  That war continues.

George Ovitt (June 3, 2018)

*I don't believe that quoting Ilyin makes Putin, or anyone else, a fascist just as, for example, quoting Heidegger doesn't make someone a Nazi. There are other grounds for thinking Putin's government is most akin to fascist governments of the past. Some of the arguments are to be found in Snyder, but others may be found in Masha Gesson's most recent book, The Future is History.